A great writer can come up with a story out of thin air, with made-up characters and cryptic experiences. Frank Zappa is famous for his imaginative stories like "Joe's Garage," and his fans love it. However, some of the best songs are about real life experiences, such as lost love, family issues, growing up in negative environments, falling in love, realizing dreams, etc. As songwriters, we may be tempted to write about experiences we make up to achieve a lyrical story. While that's a good talent to have, there's something to be said for authentic, honest lyrics.
If you're having a hard time writing about your own life and your own story, you may end up writing someone else's. We hear time and time again from music influencers to tell your story and be unique, so it's helpful as a lyricist to tap into your own real life experiences. Your fans want to know you – they want to hear about who you are, how you feel, and what you think. Here are five strategies you can try to help you write more authentic lyrics.
1. Have a conversation with yourself
Writing honest lyrics can be difficult for some people. Oftentimes, it means confronting wounds that may still be healing or addressing people who are still in your life. Have a conversation with yourself about who you are and who you want to represent in your music. What story do you want to tell? What side of yourself do you want to represent in your music? Maybe it’s the part of you that loved and lost, and you're gravitating toward slower acoustic music. Or perhaps you want to channel into your comedic, imaginative side, and write lighthearted, upbeat bluegrass songs. It's important to really look inward and ask yourself questions about how you feel, what you think, what you dream of, etc. The more self-aware you are, the better you'll be able to communicate your story through lyrics.
Before you write, try taking a relaxing walk – don't use your phone or your headphones. Just talk to yourself internally about what's going on in your life that you want to communicate. It could be something from the past or a concern of the future, but be sure you take the time to ask.
2. Write it all out
Once you've settled on a few experiences or personal themes you want to explore, sit down without any distractions and just write it all out. It doesn't have to be lyrical, rhythmic, grammatically correct, or well-written. Just get it all out – don't hold back. Treat it like a diary entry. You might be surprised what comes out on paper.
Getting everything out on paper will give you a better perspective on what you want to draw from and where you want to focus your lyrics. This step ensures that you leave nothing out. That doesn't mean you should include everything, but if you simply start writing rhythmic, melodic lyrics to chord changes, it'll be more tempting to limit your vocabulary and content matter to what sounds good in the song's structure. While it's important your lyrics sound good with the music, this exercise will help you explore what you truly want to express before turning it into a song.
3. Read up on your influences' backstories
Chances are you’ve already done plenty of reading on your musical heroes, but have you read their stories and then looked for them in their lyrics? For example, Dave Matthews' sister was murdered by her husband, and she comes up in several of his songs, including "The Stone," "Sister," and "The Song That Jane Likes." Explore the ways your influences talk about their life. It’s especially helpful if you’ve done the research on what actually happened. Maybe they reveal in an interview what the experience was like, and then you can look at the lyrics and really hear their power. You’ll get more out of the lesson if you know the backstory.
4. Explore changing names, pronouns, or subtle circumstances
If you're not entirely comfortable telling your story as it is, consider exploring making subtle changes, like changing "she" to "you," or "he" to "they." For example: "He took away my trust, and now I'm too scared to love," versus, "They took away our trust, and now we're too scared to love." These subtle changes allow you to be more earnest in situations where you want to express what happened, but fear addressing something so personally. After all, if you're an aspiring professional musician, chances are everyone close to you will hear your music at some point. You may not feel comfortable addressing things so bluntly, and that's perfectly okay!
Another change you could consider making is the particular circumstance of the story. The xx famously only address "You" and "I" because they want their lyrics to be relatable, but also ambiguous. Their stories are true, but who they're about remain a mystery. This helps some songwriters to really get their story out there, without revealing too much that would make them feel unsettled.
5. Be proud to tell your story
This might be easier said than done, but in order to write authentic lyrics, there should be a level of pride in your story. You could tell a story that you're ashamed of, but be proud to tell it and to grow from it.
Writing songs is how many of us songwriters cope, grow, and move on from situations. If you're afraid of being yourself and telling the world who you are, it's going to be difficult to write personal lyrics, and you may end up just writing cryptic songs. Now, there's nothing wrong with writing cryptically, but part of the beauty in songwriting is relating to honest stories. Work on developing a sense of pride in expressing yourself honestly – some songs will be hard to face, hard to write, and hard to perform. But it takes courage to address sensitive subject matter, and to turn it into something positive like a song that your fans can enjoy.